Sunday, August 25, 2013

Zionism and Its Discontents

I had been hoping to blog about non-Middle East topics this week. Then, something happened that has persuaded me to stay on that topic for one more blog post.  Please forgive me for its long length.
A week ago, a Palestinian friend sent an e-mail to several peace activists, myself included, expressing his dismay about certain recent conduct on the part of Israel.  While I won’t get into the specifics of his complaint, suffice it to say that he ended his e-mail with a series of rhetorical questions that not only criticized the government of Israel but Zionism itself.  His challenge caused a number of us to respond, and that resulted in counter-responses, and so forth, until by the end of the week, one of the folks on the e-mail thread expressed dismay that such a rich dialogue was only taking place among a handful of people.   So now I feel obliged to publicize at least some of the thoughts that have emerged from that e-mail exchange.
I think we can all agree that, at times, Israel engages in oppressive activities.  The question that was raised is whether such oppression is inherent in Zionism.   Allow me to begin this post with my explanation – or, perhaps you would say “defense” – of Zionism as a philosophy.  It is taken, largely verbatim, from one of the e-mails I contributed to the dialogue referenced above.
Words that purport to identify grand philosophical or theological perspectives are inherently ambiguous.  To call oneself a small-d "democrat" (or advocate of "democracy") is ambiguous.  To call oneself a "Christian" is ambiguous.  (Does a Christian need to believe in the physical resurrection?)  And similarly, to call oneself a "Zionist" is ambiguous.

Self-proclaimed "Zionists" may adopt a variety of positions, including the following:

1.  The belief that all of the land that, according to the Torah, God promised to the Hebrew people (the land of "Zion") should be under Jewish control (that would include the West Bank).
2.  The belief that part of the land of Zion should include a country that makes itself available to take in Jewish refugees (like the people on the German ocean liner MS St. Louis who, in 1939, tried to come to the U.S. but were not permitted to stay and were sent back to die in Europe). 
3.  The belief that part of the land of Zion should include a country that is predominately populated by Jews, whose laws are subject to the will of the majority of its citizens, and that contains all of Jerusalem. 
4.  The belief that part of the land of Zion should include a country that is predominately populated by Jews, whose laws are subject to the will of the majority of its citizens, and that includes a portion of Jerusalem
5.  The belief that somewhere in the world, but not necessarily in any portion of the land of Zion, there should be a country that is predominately populated by Jews and whose laws are subject to the will of the majority of its citizens.

Those are five examples.  I'm sure that there are other possibilities.  But note that all but the first example focus on Zionism as supporting the Jewish "people," and not the Jewish "religion." People often compare the idea of the "Jewish state" to that of a "Christian state," but I believe those comparisons are truly unfair to the principle of Zionism in most of the senses in which it is used. 

Folks in the peace movement commonly say that the word Zionism is divisive, which of course it is.  But so is the word "Christian."  In fact, to many, that word has taken on negative connotations because of the way Christians have behaved when they have been able to seize power.  Personally, I promote the use of the word Zionism because I think it adds an air of candor that is important to the dialogue.   Perhaps diplomats are advised to use the term guardedly, but for those of us who are not diplomats, we need to start being more open about our views, and not less.

Typically, when people use the Z word these days, they use it in either the first, third, or fourth senses set forth above, and that is generally understood by Palestinians as well.  But there is nothing that prevents us from viewing the other senses as legitimate uses of the term, simply because we might personally disagree with them or because they might be in the minority of contemporary usage.  As someone who embraces this term, I am reluctant to discredit the “Zionism” of others who use the term in more hawkish or more dovish senses.  Clearly, my perspective is totally different from those who are Zionists in the first sense referenced above.  I find that perspective, the one most commonly embraced by ultra-Orthodox Jews, to constitute an excessive grab for land by modern Jews, who are failing to take into account the legitimate claims of their neighbors.  Then again, I am also no fan of the second sense of Zionism referenced above -- the so-called "safe haven" approach.  Both as a matter of fairness and overall societal utility, Jews deserve their own peace of earth where they can express themselves as part of a majority, rather than forever being relegated to minority status.  Let us not forget that we hold that perpetual-minority status only because we have systematically been uprooted, exterminated, or coerced into renouncing our Jewishness throughout the past two thousand years.  It is no less offensive for opponents of Zionism to forget that fact than it is for Zionists to forget the claims of Palestinians to the Holy Land.   

Personally, I find the most interesting debates to involve the above-referenced perspectives three through five.  I completely oppose #3 as a long term solution and would go so far as to say that ideally, the UN would control Jerusalem, not exclusively the Jews or the Palestinians.  If I were the emperor of the world with absolute power, I would make Jerusalem an international city devoted to the family of Abraham.  But while I made that view clear in my book, Moses the Heretic, I also view it as utopian.  The Jewish population of Israel will demand control over at least part of Jerusalem, and that is fine with me, as long as the Palestinians are allowed a portion as well.

As for senses #4 and #5, both of those perspectives are attractive to me.   The distinction between them is, of course, purely academic, for there is no way now that the Jews will agree to be displaced to a different land than present-day Israel.  Still, it might be worth noting that had I been around in 1945 and possessed the benefit of hindsight, and had someone asked me if I thought the Jewish state should be in Zion or, say, Bavaria, I might have said the following: 
(a) My fellow Jews have claims to both of those lands (unlike most anti-Zionists, I don't forget the Jewish claim to Zion based on ancient times, since the Jews never left the place voluntarily),
(b) We Jews might expect a more peaceful existence if they chose Munich over the Mediterranean,
(c) While I don't recognize that the Germans have much of a claim to Bavaria in light of the way their government treated the Jews, the Palestinians do have a legitimate claim to Palestine, and
(d) I would have had to take that latter distinction seriously in determining how much land to ask the UN to cut loose to the Jews based on "eminent domain" principles if the Jews opted to live in Zion. 
I call myself a "small Z" Zionist because I don't believe that the Jewish people can justify claiming superior rights to a large mass of land.  Indeed, it is for that reason that I also call myself a Palestinian Nationalist and strongly support the creation of a Palestinian state based on the ’67 borders (with land swaps).  But I do embrace the Z word because I believe that it was appropriate for the United Nations to give the Jews at least some "peace of earth" for our people to live in the majority.   

As a Zionist who is involved in the peace movement, I am frequently asked about what kind of discriminatory advantages Jews would have over gentiles in a Zionist state.  Truthfully, the answer would  depend on the will of the people in that state, just as any advantages that ethnic Poles have in Poland or ethnic Palestinians would have in Palestine would depend on the will of the people in those states.  Clearly, given the history of the region, gentiles must have access to the holy sites in the Zionist state, and that state would need to respect the water rights of its   neighbor, Palestine.  As to the question of what discriminatory legislation I personally would favor, I would confine that legislation to the domain of immigration, and I know that many, if not most, Zionists agree with me.  They want Israel to include gentile citizens and believe that those citizens should possess equal rights in every single domain except that of immigration.  But just as the United States de facto discriminates in its immigration policies, I would support Israel discriminating in favor of Jews who seek entrance.   That is different from saying I would support denying the immigration claims of any and all gentiles, which is not my position.

Do I agree with every policy enacted by the “Zionist state” today, or over the decades?  Not even close.  But I also believe it is unfair to Zionism to tag it with the abuses of the Israeli government, just as it is unfair to democracy to tag it with the abuses of democratically-elected leaders like Hitler.  Certainly, there is nothing inherent in the principle of Zionism that precludes Jews from criticizing the behavior of a Zionist state. 

The oddity of this entire dialogue is that while Palestinians repeatedly attempt to put the principle of Zionism on trial, from the perspective of most Israelis, it is the Palestinians who are on trial.  They are the ones who don't have a state right now and seek one.  They and their allies have tried many times to seize such power through military means and failed.  Then their leaders tried terrorism, and that brought them a big wall and international outrage.  Now the Palestinian people have largely demonstrated their willingness to embrace non-violent resistance.  But Israeli Jews are still concerned that if Israel enters into a peace treaty, the Palestinians will either (a) show that they lack control over their extremist, pro-terrorism elements, or (b) continue their drumbeat of anti-Zionist/anti-Israel arguments in the hope that it will ultimately lead to the end of the Jewish state.  In other words, most Israelis are saying to the Palestinians, why should we trust you?  What's in it for us? What have you said that would cause us to believe that your idea of a two-state solution is anything more than a two-stage solution, with the second stage being the elimination of a majority-Jewish state in the Middle East?

The answer to those questions, if ever they are given, will depend on the Palestinian people displaying the same kind of ideological diversity on some of these fundamental issues that the Jewish people have displayed.  And once enough prominent Palestinians show Israel and, yes, Zionism, the same kind of respect that so many of us Jews have shown to the idea of Palestinian Nationalism, then I think that Israel may summon the critical mass for peace, notwithstanding that there will remain some legitimate concerns about Palestinian extremists.  But until then, I don't realistically have great expectations for the prospects of peace.  And I think the Palestinians will suffer much more from the status quo than the Israelis.  

Here's the saddest truth of all:  many folks are telling the Palestinians to hold on to their dreams of justice and wait until the generation of the Holocaust dies out, and then they will find a more hospitable Israel.  For one thing, that perspective doesn't take into account the high birthrate of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who subscribe to the first above-referenced sense of Zionism.  But leaving that aside, when the Holocaust generation dies, so will the generation of Palestinians who were displaced from their homes in pre-48 Israel.  In the place of those generations will be new generations of patriots on both sides of the aisle, each of whom are raised on unbelievably biased textbooks that breed hatred and mistrust. 

No folks, if we want peace, we can hardly expect the passage of time to give it to us.  We must work for it.   We must build trust and mutual respect.  And we must recognize not only each other's victimization, but each other's aspirations.  I didn't say it would be easy, but as Spinoza said in the last sentence of the Ethics, "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."
So, there you have, in large part, the text of my e-mail from earlier in the week.  In response, my Palestinian friend made a request.   He sent us a link to an interview that was taken of Benny Morris, one of the world’s most prominent Zionist, Israeli historians.   The interview can be found at the following link:

I would urge you to read this interview for yourself.  If you do, you will see that just as many Jewish Zionists like me have expressed a concern that the Palestinians might turn a “two-state” solution into a nightmarish “two-stage” solution for Israel, Palestinians have their own legitimate concerns about what Israel could do to them after a peace treaty is signed.  Mr. Morris holds himself out as someone who is liberal-minded and pro peace.  And yet he clearly looks at the Palestinians largely as uncivilized animals fueled by an uncivilized religion.  Indeed, he holds this attitude towards the Palestinians who currently reside in pre-’67 Israel as well as the ones who live in the West Bank or Gaza.   The sense I get from his article is that if Israel were to agree to a peace treaty and were to experience any difficulties at all with either its Palestinian population or its Palestinian neighbors (and surely there would be some transitional distress), Morris might advocate treating the Palestinians as a cancer that must be obliterated by any means necessary.  You’ll pardon the Palestinians if they believe that Morris speaks for a large swath of the Israeli society.


As I reflect on this week of e-mails, I keep imagining the following scenario.   A peace treaty is signed and, almost miraculously, the two peoples agree on “two states for two peoples based on the ’67 borders with land swaps.”  For the first year or so, everything goes swimmingly – the Jewish settlers agree to leave the settlements to the Palestinians, school textbooks in both Israel and Palestine are re-written to make room for both narratives, and trust between the two peoples increases geometrically.  Then, tragically, over the course of a weekend, three suicide bombs go off in Israel killing 300 people, 250 of whom are Jews.   What happens next?   An expulsion of all Palestinians from Israel by an outraged Jewish majority?  A set of demands on the part of Palestinian justice activists calling for the elimination of discriminatory immigration laws by “the racist Zionist state”?  Or a joint statement on the part of the Palestinian and Israeli governments calling for enhanced security measures, mutual respect, and patience in support of the two-state peace agreement? 
I don’t know the answer to those questions.  But I do know the answer to a more important question: at bottom, are Jews and Palestinians cousins or enemies? 

In other words, are Jews and Palestinians destined to fight for hundreds of years, until we ultimately destroy each other (and perhaps take much of the world with us)?  Or can we not only live in peace but with respect for each other’s claims to the land, compassion for each other’s historical suffering, and recognition that we are the closest of relatives?

You know where I stand.  And if you have any concern for the future of our species, you’ll stand with me.

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